From Print Culture to Electronic Culture

Article excerpt

Paper-publishing as a model for electronic publishing

For centuries, scholarship in the western tradition has centred on printed books as the defining medium by which it expresses and preserves knowledge. Ask in the rare-books library for a source of scholarly understanding about Stonehenge which is a full five centuries old, Caxton's Chronicle of England of 1482, and you find a printed volume which as a physical object astonishingly resembles a book about Stonehenge of 1982 or of 1998 - in its alphabet of standardized letters adapted from hand-written forms, in its black ink on folded paper, in its binding, in the size, the shape and the number of pages, in the type-size, the line spacing and the margins to the page, in the divisions by paragraphs and chapters, in the ordering, indexing and conventions of its contents. Already old in the 15th century - for these conventions derived from the habits of the copied manuscripts - that standard format shapes scholarly knowledge to this day. We call a spoken communication at a meeting 'a paper' for the material on which it would be printed if it were to be printed - even when its words were never written down on paper, but extemporized. We question whether a form of knowledge impossible to convey in print, such as a mathematical proof existing as an immense iterative computer program, actually amounts to a proper demonstration to be valued equally with a printed-paper proof. We worry if data existing only electronically and nowhere in book form are sufficiently proper or secure to count as real knowledge. When it comes to assessments, those of us who work in electronic media fear that those outputs will not be respected equally with printed media because they are not 'proper' publications. These habits run so deep that they shape the names of the concepts involved: the word 'publication' means the making of something public, but we narrow it to mean the making of something public in printed-book format.

No wonder, then, that electronic publication uses metaphors drawn from the world of printed paper: what appears on the computer screen is structured as if it were a desktop covered with paper documents, and the electronic information itself resides in 'files' as paper documents do. That metaphor and parallel with paper publishing structures the World Wide Web, where the basic unit is called a 'page' - even though the technical concerns which shape a printed page and make it a unit of quantity in the print do not apply to that electronic medium.(1) Many of the evolving and established conventions of print are being transferred into the electronic media. Some are not: most printed scholarly publication is monochrome, nearly all electronic publishing is colour. Other habits, especially those by which the nature of the knowledge conveyed is signalled by print conventions, are being transformed in the transferring.

Print conventions and the nature of knowledge in printed form

A consistent feature of print publishing has been and is the separation of the roles taken by the author and by the editor/publisher, whose job is to select from what is written and might be published that smaller portion which comes to be published. That separation removes the decision as to whether to publish, and the exact form it takes, from the domain of the self-publishing author alone into that of the editor/publisher, who has the benefit of being distanced from the intimacy of its creation. Publishing at an author's expense and request, without any independence of editorial view, is called 'vanity publishing' because it is seen to flatter the author without regard to the actual merit of the work issued.

Generally, more - often much more - is or might be written than is published; typically, scholarly book and journal publishers turn down much of what is offered to them. This is a first filtering process, which reduces how much is published.

That selection process is, or is intended to be, systematic: the editor/publisher chooses the better amongst what is available. …